SEEING America's Statue of Liberty for the first time -- Miss Liberty standing erect and firm, torch held high at the entrance to New York Harbor -- has inspired millions of people over the years. Many of those inspired have been tourists.
But millions of others have found special meaning in the statue, the gift of the people of France, because they have been immigrants to the United States. For them, Miss Liberty has stood as a beacon of the very promise of America -- and its open welcome to the oppressed and dispossessed of other nations.
The restoration work now under way on the Statue of Liberty comes at a timely moment. In an engineering sense, of course, the statue is in need of refurbishing. But we are referring to something else.
The renewal work comes at an important political junction for the United States -- against a backdrop of renewed legislative effort in Washington to enact a new immigration-control bill that would seek to restrict illegal immigration.
Such a measure has been long overdue; public disquiet about illegal immigration creates an unfair backlash against desirable and necessary legal immigration.
The restoration work also comes against a backdrop of rising assaults and abuses directed against immigrants in general, and particularly Asians, such as Cambodians and South Vietnamese, who have fled to the United States in search of sanctuary and freedom.
At a time when Miss Liberty is being refurbished, it seems important for individual Americans to renew and strengthen their own commitment to the meaning of the United States -- what the American experience means in terms of immigration.
From its very inception the US has been a nation based on the assimilation of newcomers. At first they came primarily from the British Isles. Later, Northern Europe. Southern Europe. Then Latin America and Asia. And, of course, blacks came, in large part involuntarily, throughout the formative years of the new republic.
Legal immigration is welcome and vital to a nation built upon the very concept of sanctuary -- a place for those who have fled in search of freedom and opportunity. Immigrants bring new job skills, new perspectives and attitudes, unique cultural traits -- all of which enrich the larger mosaic of American society. Immigrants should be welcomed and valued. Attacks against newcomers of the sort that have taken place recently in parts of Boston as well as elsewhere in the US must not be tolerated.
Meantime, Congress is to be applauded for once again moving to enact new immigration reform legislation to control illegal immigration. Senate hearings this week have examined a new compromise measure introduced by Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming. And in the House, influential Democrat Peter Rodino, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is proposing an important new measure of his own. The emergence of Mr. Rodino at the immigration-control wheel may help speed eventual enactment of a joint Senat e-House bill.
That is still down the legislative pike. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that there is new reason for optimism that a bill may yet emerge. In the Senate, for example, Mr. Simpson has softened some of the more controversial elements of his original bill. His new version would phase in sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens. Sanctions would be civil, instead of criminal. Further, instead of immediate legalization of aliens already in the US, as originally called for, amnesty wou ld be delayed pending a determination of the extent to which employer sanctions were working.
As we said, there is still a distance to travel before a joint congressional measure could be approved. But the time to do so is at hand.
Congress has now approved plans to mint three new commemorative coins to help pay for the restoration work on Miss Liberty.
The Treasury expects to be releasing the coins by early next year. Beyond the symbolism of the coins and progress of the monument's restoration, Americans should support congressional action to secure a fair reception for today's newcomers.